A Master of Symbology: How Mithridates Eupator United the Foes of Rome
Pop culture usually depicts the relationship between Greeks and the East as tumultuous. This is due mainly to the three wars Greece fought against Persia, featured in films like 300 by Zack Snyder. While the Persian wars (c. 5th century BC) tell us something about the relationship between Greece and the East, that doesn't mean these two cultures were never allies.
Mithridates Eupator of the Pontic Kingdom (135–63 BC) was one such ringleader, successfully uniting Greeks and Asians into a force which made him to become the most dangerous threat to Rome since Hannibal a century earlier. As Adrienne Mayor captures in her seminal work, The Poison King, Mithridates’ was able to gather such diverse support by blending Greek and Persian cultures.
A Cultural Chameleon
While it is uncertain what Alexander the Great's (356 – 323 BC) empire would have become had he not met his untimely demise, Mithridates Eupator, and his Pontic Kingdom might have been something like that lost dream. Claiming Macedonian ancestry on one side, and Persian dynastic lineage on the other, Mithridates used his claims of mixed descent to bring out the commonalities between his diverse subjects.
Taking on Alexander's mantle of global empire builder, quite literally as he claimed, Mithridates envisioned an alternative to Roman supremacy: a new world order. To achieve this ambitious aim, the Pontian king united his Greek, Anatolian, and Persian subjects under an anti-Roman, cross-cultural coalition.
The result of this united front was three wars fought against Rome between 88 and 63 BC. More grimly, it also led to the systematic murder of Anatolian Romans, which reached genocidal proportions.
How could he amass such a diverse following against a foe as formidable as the Romans? Mithridates positioned himself as mediator between the forces of his coalition, to extend his influence. As mentioned, his dual Greek and Iranian dynastic lineages allowed him to claim illustrious ancestors and a unique hybrid set of dynastic customs.
Mithridates was a Helleno-Persian prince who practiced mixed-religious rites. As a member of both Greek and Persian worlds, he was able to identify and embody what could be described as “redemptive” qualities that resonated both in the Greek and Perso-Anatolian worlds.
For the Greeks, Mithridates emphasized a mythical connection with Dionysus, the god of liberation and new beginnings. He did so by taking a theonym as an extension of his own name, styling himself Mithridates Eupator Dionysus. Similarly, Mithridates claimed heritage from Heracles, who emancipated the titan Prometheus, the provider of humanity.
On the other side of the equation, Mithridates's birth, signaled by a star, was said to fulfill Persian prophesies of a coming savior from the East. His very name, meaning "Mithras-sent" underlined him divine purpose.
Using existing Greek and Persian traditions, Mithridates presented himself as a savior of both sides of the Helleno-Persian world at once. This allowed him to present a united front against the encroaching Roman threat from the west.
Foretold by Prophecy
Of all the stunning coins minted by Mithridates and passed down to us from antiquity, it is one of the most humble examples, as with the grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade , which best exhibits the King's self-ascribed messianic qualities. This simple "penny" belongs to the group of bronze coins scholars call the Pontic “nummi incerti” (Fig. 1).
Scholars believe these were minted in the autonomous regions of Colchis or the Cimmerian Bosporus to commemorate Mithridates early on in his career (c. 110 to c. 80 BC).
Figure. 1 (Obv) Head of horse facing right, with star of eight points on its neck. (Rev) Comet star of eight points with trail to right. SNG BM Black Sea 984; SNG Stancomb 653 corr. (same dies); HGC 7, 317. ( Classical Numismatic Group )
The obverse depicts the bust of a horse striding to the right and a flower-like star with eight rays positioned on its neck. On the reverse is an even larger floral star with rays of equal number apart from one beam, which is replaced with what looks like a long comet-like smear across a sky. The horse was identified as the constellation Hypos, which was likely interchangeable with Pegasus (the flying horse from Greek myth).
In his History of Pompeius Trogus , the historian Justin records that two comets blazed through the sky during Mithridates’s birth which shone for 70 days on the year of his reign. This is perhaps too good to be true, and scholars generally consider this a fabrication to embellish the King's origins.
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The reason was that at the time of Mithridates, Persian prophesies of a coming savior and the doom of Rome were circulating. Texts such as the Oracles of Hystaspes , the Bahman Yasht , and the Sibylline Oracles include prophecies foretelling that a star would herald the birth of a savior, who would bring about Rome's destruction.
However, there is some evidence that these stories of Mithridates's birth were not fabricated. Around September 135 BC, astronomers from the Han Dynasty in China identified what appeared to be the same phenomenon, which they named War Banner Comets.
Using an electronic ephemeris and calendar-conversion program, Ramsey, in his 1999 article Mithridates, the Banner of Ch'ih-yu, and the Comet Coin , concluded the Hypos/ Pegasus constellation would indeed have been the backdrop for the auspicious star that appeared at Mithridates' birth.
By minting coins depicting a Pegasus, then, Mithridates or his allies may have been attempting to link the shooting star that appeared during his birth with the Persian prophecies of the arrival of the savior King. The implication may well have been apparent to an Anatolian resident; an inscription wasn't necessary.
The message of the comet and the heavenly horse, to the faithful, would have been blatantly clear. The signs were written in the stars, and Mithridates had been sent to wage war on the side of Truth and Order, just as the ancient prophecies foretold.
Symbols Chosen for Broad Appeal
It seems no coincidence, then, that Pegasus was an emblem particular to Mithridates. McGing writes in his 1986 book The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus that Mithridates Eupator was the first Pontic ruler to depict a Pegasus on his coinage. Apart from one other example by Seleucus II, it is almost unknown on Hellenistic coins.
However, the comet is omitted in Mithridates's official coins, and those of his Greek allies. This is likely because while meteors are hopeful premonitions in the East, they harbor baleful associations in the Greco-Roman world. Instead of symbols of hope, for the Greeks and Romans shooting stars signaled the end of an empire, natural disasters, and war.
For example, the pro-Mithridatic government in Athens signaled where their allegiance lay by having their coins depict Pegasus drinking, without a comet in the foreground (Fig. 2). Mithridates may have found a way to portray his auspicious birth to his Hellenic supporters in a way they found palatable, without sacrificing the message of salvation for his Eastern subjects.
Another Iranian theme in Mithridates's coins can be found with depictions of Perseus, the famed hero of Greek myth and, according to Classical mythographers, the progenitor of the Persian nation (Fig. 3). Since there is no Perseus in Iranian folklore that we know of, Mithridates may have intended to appeal more to the Greeks’ oriental fascination than to his Perso-Anatolian supporters.
The depiction of Perseus wearing a leather helmet may have subtly appealed to a Persian audience since it is an Iranian symbol of kingship. Similarly, Perseus's “harpe” sword (a curved sword associated with eastern armies), curved in the likeness of a comet's trail, may just as likely have invoked the Iranian prophesies of a coming savior to his eastern followers.
Figure 2 (Rev) Owl r., head facing, wings closed, on prostrate amphora; in field r., Pegasus drinking 1. ΑΘΕ, ΑΡΙΣΤΙΩΝ, ΦΙΛΩΝ, ΘΕΟ: all enclosed in olive-wreath. ( Numismatics)
Figure 3 PONTUS, Amisos . Circa 85-65 BC..(Obv) Head of Perseus right, wearing a winged Phrygian helmet. (Rev) AMI-SOU, winged harpa; monogram right. SNG BMC Black Sea 1198. ( Classic Numismatic Group )
Greek Redeemers in Myth
Being a "jack-of-all-saves," Mithridates likewise tapped into the Greek belief in the coming of a sotêr (savior). For the Greeks, one such suffering hero was Heracles. The pathoi (passions or struggles) Heracles endured in completing his labors absolved him of his iniquities, appeasing the capricious Hera and allowing him to take his place among the gods.
As one of his minor labors, Heracles also lifted the chains off the titan Prometheus, who famously stole fire from the gods for mankind and whom Zeus chained to rock for his transgressions. By freeing Prometheus from his suffering Heracles further worked towards achieving his immortality.
Another, perhaps more dramatic display of redemption is through Dionysus. Zeus provided a surrogacy to Dionysus after his premature birth, thus giving him a second genesis or causing him to be born-again.
An epithet of Dionysus is Eleuthereus or “Deliverer”. In his Description of Greece , the ancient historian Pausanias tells us that at the oldest sanctuary of Dionysus in Attica, there was a magnificent statue of the god in the guise of Eleuthereus (Redeemer), and a painting of him carrying Hephaestus into heaven.
Hephaestus had gifted Hera a cunningly forged golden chair which had ensnared her when she first sat on it. Pausanias describes the fable told in Attic circles of Dionysus successfully "convincing" (with the help of some wine) the maimed god to be taken to Olympus, so that Hera could be released.
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Aside from drunken diplomacy, Dionysus's intoxicating abilities had the power to release humankind from the anxieties of their hum-drum lives. As the playwriter, Euripides, writes in his play The Bacchae , Dionysus did so by vanquishing, "…care when to the sacred meal comes the gleam of the grape and upon men in their ivy-decked feasts the wine bowl casts a mantle of sleep."
Moreover, Dionysus also had emancipating qualities of the socio-political variety. The epithet Luaios ("loosen-er") was assigned to him at Thebes after he freed local prisoners taken by Thracians. A similar scene is included in The Bacchae , where he disrupts society by freeing women from their households and other bonds, thereby challenging gender roles and the Greek/barbarian paradigm.
Mithridates must have seen a great deal of himself in these divine archetypes of a man who set enslaved people free and challenged established hierarchies.
Figure 5 Young Mithridates as Hercules freeing Prometheus, marble sculpture group, Pergamon. Berlin, (Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY )
Mithridates as Another Herakles
By embodying these figures' aesthetic and moral values in his propaganda, Mithridates sought to spread his influence over the Greek world. Mithridates claimed mythical ancestry from Heracles through Alexander the Great, who Mithridates also claimed as an ancestor. One example of Mithridates touting his Heraclean connections is a statue in the Vatican Museum (Fig. 4).
The piece depicts a bearded and fatherly Heracles in a typical “contrapposto” position (standing with one knee bent) with a playful, curly-headed Telephus on his shoulders. Scholars conclude that Telephus has been designed to resemble Mithridates, based on earlier portraiture on coins.
Like his purported forefather, casting himself as the son of Heracles made allegorical sense. Similarly, being surnamed Eupator, the tender scene between father and child may have likewise evoked Mithridates' paternalistic leadership.
It appears the piece was so synonymous with Mithridates that upon his ultimate defeat in 63 BC the Roman general Pompey paraded the statue around Rome, finally installing it in his theatre in the Campus Martius.
Another less certain connection to Mithridates is part of the Prometheus Group, housed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (Fig. 5). Scholars have identified the tripartite ensemble as the scene of the titan's liberation, including a likeness of Mithridates in the portrayal of Heracles.
It is indeed tempting to interpret the scene as Heracles rescuing Prometheus from the eagle which would peck out his liver every day. And since the eagle was likewise a symbol of the Romans, Mithridates may have chosen to commission art that symbolized his role as a victorious adversary to Rome.
Like the grueling tasks set before Heracles, Mithridates's armies had travelled to Greece, tasked with defeating a foe that oppressed the locals. After passing a series of trials, Mithridates was one step closer to ending the tyrannical whim that beset the Mediterranean world and liberating Greece.
Figure 4 Hercules and his son Telephus, Pergamon. Chiaramonti Museum, Vatican. (Scala / Art Resource, NY )
Mithridates as the New Dionysus
Perhaps the most vivid divine allusion comes with Mithridates’s portrayal as Dionysus, which went as far in drawing a clear connection to the god by his taking “Dionysus” as one of his epithets. To further cement the link, Plutarch's Moralia tells of a bolt of lightning that struck Mithridates's cradle as an infant, engulfing him in flames. But Mithridates emerged out of the ashes unscathed, as baby Dionysus from his mother's incinerated remains.
On coins, too, Mithridates chose to be depicted in his royal portrait with Dionysus's long, flowing hair, anticipating a sense of movement and of change (Fig. 6). His mouth is shown as agape, gasping for breath in hopeful wonder.
As the “Neos Dionysios” (new Dionysus), like the god, Mithridates was a figure who blended two realms, challenging the traditional Greek-Barbarian polarity. He was a Helleno-Persian who wanted to bring about the destruction of Rome, the true vile enemy.
Hailing from the East, he promised salvation. His messenger arrived on Greek shores to offer freedom from the drudgery of the Roman way of life: taxes, slavery, and cultural neglect.
Exuding these Greek soteriological elements, Mithridates personified as much a Persian messiah as he did a Greek redeemer. Consequently, Mithridates mediated a cooperation of East and West that inflicted mayhem on Rome for the duration of three wars.
Figure 6 Portrait of Mithridates, silver tetradrachm, 75/74 BC. ( CNG)
Top image: Mithridates expertly used symbology to appeal to the multiple factions of his coalition. Source: Fernando Cortés / Adobe Stock.
By Thanos Matanis
Euripides & Kovacs, D. 2003. Bacchae. Iphigenia at Aulis. Rhesus. Loeb Classical Library 495. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Justinus, Marcus Junianus, John Yardley, Pat Wheatley, and Waldemar Heckel. 2011. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Mayor, A. 2011. The Poison King: the life and legend of Mithridates, Rome's deadliest enemy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
McGing, B. 1986. The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus. Leiden: Brill.
Pausanias, Jones, W. H. S., Litt, D. & Ormerod, M. A. 1918. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation. Vol. 4. Harvard University Press: London.
Plutarch, Philip De Lacy, and Benedict Einarson. 2000. Plutarch Moralia. Vol. 7 Vol. 7. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Ramsey, J. T. 1999. "Mithridates, the Banner of Ch'ih-yu, and the Comet Coin". Harvard Studies In Classical Philosology. 99: 197-254.